Posters outside JW3, London's Jewish community centre, capture the fears of British Jews. Image: Paul Black

Fractured minority

With antisemitism at record levels, the Gaza war is reshaping Britain's Jewish community.
June 5, 2024

Outside JW3, the Jewish community centre in northwest London, the wall is lined with posters. The typographic display, curated by graphic designer Max Bloom, went up in February and features quotes from conversations with British Jews. “It’s getting scarier and scarier to be a Jew,” reads one. “I’ve been avoiding social events because I’m scared of people speaking to me about it,” says another.

The posters capture sentiments that I have heard repeatedly from British Jews around the country—and across the political spectrum—since the 7th October attacks and the launching of Israel’s war on Gaza. They echo the expressions of isolation and devastation wired into the conversations that Jews are having as the onslaught in Gaza continues. Reading them on a recent visit to JW3, I was reminded of the man in his twenties who told me that he had friends round to his flat one day, only to be gut-punched by their “soft-core denialism” over the brutality of Hamas’s violence. Or the woman in her early thirties, opposed to Israel’s war, who said that her identity as a British Jew had never felt so under threat—from factors inside and outside the community: “I wasn’t prepared to feel that sense of abandonment and alienation.”

Amid an alarming spike in antisemitism, Britain’s Jewish population, a minority numbering less than 300,000, is fearful. British Jews feel overwrought, over-scrutinised and under pressure. There is a shared devastation and grief over the Hamas-led attacks from last October, in which some 1,200 were killed and around 250, including children, taken hostage. But that might be where any agreement ends. Across some two dozen interviews for this piece, and in the course of speaking with many others over several months while researching a book on antisemitism, what became clear is that the Jewish community is fractured. British Jews are “intensely divided, across different lines and in new ways,” as one rabbi put it to me. “People are struggling to talk to each other.”

These ruptures cut painfully across family ties and friendships. They reflect a polarisation: some are horrified by Israel’s destruction of Gaza; others view the war as a just and defensive fight—the stance of the majority of Jewish-Israelis. In London, one young woman told me she is aware of an “uncomfortable paradigm”, increasingly common, “that there are ‘good Jews’ and ‘bad Jews’”. Both inside and beyond the Jewish community, she explains, it is your beliefs that determine which category you are in. 

Eighty-five per cent of the total population of Gaza is internally displaced

All this is happening during a particularly horrifying chapter in the decades-long Israel-Palestine conflict. The war on Gaza, a narrow strip of land besieged since 2007, has killed more than 35,700 people. Thousands more are missing, likely dead, under the rubble of collapsed buildings. Save the Children estimates that the death toll includes around 13,000 children, while the United Nations Children’s Fund spokesperson James Elder has said this tiny strip of land is “the most dangerous place in the world to be a child”. Thousands have been orphaned and one in 30 Palestinians have been injured, many with terrible burns, shrapnel wounds or broken bones. Around 1.9m Palestinians, 85 per cent of the total population of Gaza, are internally displaced, facing starvation and in dire need of humanitarian support. Gaza itself has been rendered uninhabitable by Israel’s bombardment. The levels of violence that Gazans have endured over the past eight months—on top of the existing trauma of several previous wars—will scar lives for decades to come. 

The bombardment followed Hamas’s rampage on 7th October, in which civilians in southern towns and cities that border Gaza were gunned down in the streets, in their homes, in shelters and at an outdoor rave. Families were burned. Bodies were found mutilated and with signs of sexual assault. Some of the attackers filmed the carnage on bodycams and phones, the violence on show to the world in real time. The nature of the attack, its scale and its imagery, reminded Jews around the world of the darkest days of deadly European antisemitism. While more than 100 hostages were released as part of a short ceasefire agreement last November, 125 or so are still in captivity. This too has agonised Israelis and Jews worldwide. 

Eight months on, tens of thousands of Israeli families are living in hotels or other temporary accommodation while evacuated from the northern border with Lebanon and the southern towns bordering Gaza. At the JW3 community centre, the walkway leading to the entrance has become the Lovelock Hostage Bridge. It is covered in padlocks bearing messages of support for those still held in Gaza.

And British Jews are keenly aware of the antisemitism unleashed by these horrors. In 2023, of the 4,103 incidents recorded by the Community Security Trust (CST), a British charity that monitors antisemitism, two-thirds took place after 7th October, with 31 instances on that day. Anti-Jewish abuse was shouted by random people on Britain’s streets, mostly from cars. The CST has reported 151 instances of assault, 151 of damage or vandalism, and 228 threats. In some cases, stones, bricks and bottles were thrown at victims. Verbal abuse has spiralled, as has vandalism of Jewish property, such as schools, synagogues and cemeteries. A spokesperson for the CST explained these incidents could not be confused with straightforward criticism of Israel, even on the occasions when the slogans match. For instance, chanting “Free Palestine” at a demonstration is clearly about Israel. But it is not the same as phoning a synagogue to deliver this message (as one London rabbi described to me), or arbitrarily shouting it at Jewish-looking passers-by.

Reactions to the dismaying spike in antisemitism vary, as my interviews show. Some British Jews have taken to removing or hiding Star of David necklaces; others wear them more proudly and visibly—“for defiance, to stand up for ourselves”, as one woman in her fifties tells me at JW3. Some Jewish men refuse, for religious or cultural reasons, to remove kippas (head coverings) but report being harassed in the street or “asked about the genocide” in Gaza while at the pub as a result. Some told me that the increase in antisemitism strengthens the case for Israel’s existence; others said that they are more preoccupied with the carnage in Gaza. Still others are worn down trying to speak out about both.

What is perhaps hardest to discuss—or unpack—is the attachment that the majority of British Jews have towards Israel. According to polling from the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (IJPR) conducted in late 2022, 73 per cent feel very or somewhat attached to the country. This is higher than in the US, which has the largest Jewish population in the world outside of Israel. According to Pew polling from 2020, 48 per cent of US Jews under 30 describe themselves as very or somewhat emotionally attached to Israel, compared with two-thirds of those aged 65 and over. The people that I spoke with described connections ranging from family living in Israel, to holding the country central to Jewish culture, religion and identity. This itself is the result of growing up within Jewish communities—going to synagogue, say, or a Jewish school or youth group—where Jewish identity was bound to Israel.

Verbal abuse has spiralled, as has vandalism of Jewish property

This was not always the case. Prior to Israel’s creation in 1948, you could find plenty of disagreement across global communities over Zionism, the Jewish national movement founded in the late 19th century. In Britain, community bodies worried that the establishment of Israel would adversely affect Jewish communities, hindering efforts to integrate. But after the Holocaust and Israel’s founding, many Jewish community bodies began to view the new state as a core part of Jewish identity, and survival. That deepened in the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. With tensions escalating between the Jewish state and neighbouring Arab countries, Israel launched a pre-emptive air strike on Egyptian troops mobilised on its southern border. Within six days, it won a ground victory against Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq. That was the start of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, as well as the Syrian Golan Heights—for Palestinians the “Naksa” (setback) in which almost 400,000 were displaced. 

While many in the west saw the Israeli victory as a David and Goliath moment, nations across the Arab world and the global south saw in Israel’s conquests the expansionist hallmarks of a form of settler colonialism, one that ethnically cleansed Palestinians from the territory that now makes up the Israeli state. Upwards of 700,000 Palestinians had been displaced, while thousands were killed, in the war leading to the formation of Israel in 1948. 

But for British Jews, much like their American co-religionists, the 1967 war was existential: they believed that, had Israel lost, it would have meant the end of the state. The crisis accelerated the rallying around Israel, the fixing of this ethnonational state to Jewish prayers and practices and identity. Theodor Herzl, the Viennese journalist who was Zionism’s founding father, understood early on that the symbols of Judaism, and the spiritual connection to Jerusalem, would help the movement grow. After the Six Day War, which also heralded the rise of messianic settlers in the occupied Palestinian territories, diaspora Jews were increasingly raised to see Zionism as integral to being Jewish (with the exception of certain ultra-Orthodox communities that tend to anti- or non-Zionism). 

The scale of this binding-to-Israel seemed alien to my family arriving to Britain in the 1970s—actual Israelis, who had moved there as refugees from Iraq. Certainly, many in the Jewish community are now questioning it, too. The IJPR polling found that the proportion of British Jews identifying as “Zionist” dropped from 72 per cent to 63 per cent over the decade up to 2022. 

What should non-Jews make of this attachment? Everyone can, hopefully, agree that a connection to Israel should not make British Jews a target for antisemitism, which spikes every time that tensions in the region escalate. We might also agree not to infer that anyone with a “connection” to Israel automatically supports the state’s violent policies towards the Palestinian people. But from there on, things get murky. One can passionately disagree with a British Jewish person’s appraisal of the Gaza war as “self-defence”, but not be motivated by anti-Jewish hatred. One can be distressed by the apocalyptic images coming out of the Palestinian strip and wonder how anyone might justify such horrors, yet not be fuelled by antisemitism. But the different motivations lying behind criticism have been terribly conflated amid a fearful Jewish minority and its established leadership.

Hannah Weisfeld is director of Yachad (Hebrew for “together”), an organisation that builds support in the British Jewish community for a political resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Where is the line between ‘I am scared and offended’ and ‘You are being antisemitic’?” she asked when we spoke by phone; “It is almost impossible to distinguish now.” The rise in antisemitism is undeniable, Weisfeld noted, but she added that there is an inability among some British Jews to hear disagreement. Still others can’t take offence “without assuming that the person who has offended you has the worst intentions that you could possibly imagine”.

The division over the chant “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”, a popular and longstanding feature at pro-Palestine demonstrations, is a classic case study, Weisfeld said. While Palestinians and their allies explain that this is a call for freedom and human rights for the Palestinians who live in the area between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean Sea, some people insist that it is an antisemitic call for Jewish-Israeli expulsion. “That is a prime example of people making a decision that a perspective they profoundly disagree with means: ‘People want to kill me’,” Weisfeld said.

The Board of Deputies of British Jews (BoD), which claims to be the largest Jewish communal organisation in the UK, is lobbying the government to restrict what it describes as London’s “anti-Israel” protests. In March, the government’s commissioner for countering extremism, Robin Simcox, said that London had become a “no-go zone for Jews every weekend”. In February, the current home secretary James Cleverly called on the protesters to stop since they had “made their point”—his predecessor, Suella Braverman, had also disparaged them. That same month prime minister Rishi Sunak said that he wanted a clampdown on protest and “mob rule”. Jewish fears of antisemitism are legitimate. And yet, the concerns of this minority have been cynically invoked by a right-wing government to justify clampdowns on free speech.

I have been to several London protests but, again, opinions vary. Some Jews have told me that they do not want to be in central London while the demonstrations are taking place. Others have said that, while they agree with the protesters’ aims, they still don’t want to be at those marches. Others attend either individually or as part of a growing Jewish bloc. A 24-year-old whom I spoke with at JW3, explained what he sees as the problem: “There is a very vocal minority who cross the line… and you never know if you are looking at someone who is that vocal minority, or is the nice majority saying reasonable, correct and justified things.” Nobody I spoke with suggested banning demonstrations.

Yet the impression created by some of the leaders of communal Jewish bodies, and by the British government, is that most British Jews want to ban these marches because of antisemitism. Community groups are also policing who is deemed an appropriate representative of British Jewry on the subject of the Gaza war. Those vocally opposed to it have been marginalised. In March, Mark Gardner, chief executive of the CST, told BBC Radio 4 that there were two types of Jews who attend pro-Palestine marches: ultra-Orthodox Jews who don’t believe in the state of Israel (a reference to the Naturei Karta sect, who often attend pro-Palestinian marches) and revolutionary socialists who were “using their Jewishness so that people get the impression this movement is not fundamentally antisemitic.” In other words, religious anti-Zionists and useful idiots. 

In May, the New North London Synagogue in Finchley, north London, placed Rabbi Lara Haft Yom-Tov under internal investigation after they used the term “war criminals” to describe Israeli leaders in an essay written around the Passover holiday. Yom-Tov apologised—although a week later the International Criminal Court agreed with them, applying for arrest warrants for Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and defence minister Yoav Gallant, alongside three of Hamas’s leaders, over allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity. 

‘We feel more Jewish than ever and our love of being Jewish is stronger than ever’

Some of the British Jews I interviewed believe community leadership bodies do reflect the mainstream Jewish view, but this elides the fact that there is a greater mix of opinion over Gaza than these organisations portray. The chief rabbi of the UK, Ephraim Mirvis, may have recently described the Israeli army as “our heroic soldiers”, but would British Jews uniformly agree that this army is either “theirs” or “heroic”? The BoD may have made statements opposing calls for a Gaza truce, but the New Israel Fund UK (a branch of a major Israeli NGO) has called for a ceasefire, a hostage release deal and a return to genuine negotiations for peace. The Jewish anti-occupation group Na’amod, which has nearly doubled its membership in recent months, is a regular part of the weekly Gaza marches. In mid-May, 34 British rabbis signed a letter calling for Israel to accept a ceasefire and halt its attack on Rafah in the southern Gaza strip. 

The impression from Jewish leadership organisations is that there is an Israel-right-or-wrong monolith, where the “correct” view is somewhere on the right when it comes to Palestinians and Israel’s military. I have some experience of this, having been called an “asshole” on the BoD’s official Twitter account in March last year—in a hastily deleted post—for not having the “right” view on the lessons of the Holocaust.

The framing over Israel’s responsibility for Gaza’s ruin is “completely myopic”, and “unrepresentative” of those “who are quietly embarrassed, or ashamed, or want to lay low because the whole thing is a shit show,” said one woman in her early forties and in the Jewish mainstream. Several people that I spoke to mentioned efforts—either within the organisational structure itself or through external appeals—to tug the Board of Deputies to more progressive positions, efforts that have repeatedly failed. In response to my reporting, the Board stated that its “democratic structure makes it the most representative organisation in the UK Jewish community”, that its membership spans a range of “political and religious-affiliation” and that it is “proud of the diverse range of voices in the community we encompass”. It also added that “while there are different perspectives on some aspects of policy relating to Israel, there is near unanimity on a few key points: the need to see the hostages released; the need to counter the threat of Iran and its proxies like Hamas; and the desirability of expanding the Abraham Accords and promoting peace in the Middle East.” 

In May, Na’amod launched a campaign to divest from the BoD, in particular over its stance on Gaza. A Na’amod spokesperson told the Jewish Chronicle that the Board was promoting a damaging agenda—rather than speaking out against the consequences of Israel’s actions in Gaza, it has “been complicit in a right-wing project to repress public outcry and calls for an end to the violence”.

Divisions over Gaza are most apparent across the generations. This is expressed both by young Jews alienated by the pro-Israel stance of their community bodies and by their parents’ generation, who worry about young people growing distant from the community. One 22-year-old from Leeds described how reactions to the Israel-Gaza war caused him to drift away from the mainstream. The communities he grew up in “can’t quite grasp the enormity of it. The trauma of 7th October looms so large that even those with the best intentions can’t grasp this is a Nakba-level event,” he said—citing the Arabic word for catastrophe, a reference to the ethnic cleansing and dispossession of Palestinians that led to the creation of Israel (and which Palestinians say is ongoing).

“Our kids are miles more progressive than the mainstream congregation in our synagogues,” one woman in her fifties said. She sees a change with younger Jews, for whom Israel has become not the refuge from persecution her generation was brought up to believe in, but a racist and ethnonationalist state that oppresses Palestinians. And she embraces the idea of them growing up with a different sense of what Jewishness means: “Maybe for them it will be about fighting for a better world.” This is exactly what some of the members of Na’amod describe as central to their movement. One, in his early thirties, tells me that “with Na’amod we feel more Jewish than ever and our love of being Jewish is stronger than ever”. 

Standing with Palestinians in this moment has left many young people estranged from the mainstream Jewish community. But it has enabled a reconnection to Jewish values that resonate with their progressivism, antiracism and moral compass. And this includes combatting antisemitism. Several that I spoke with worry that accusations of antisemitism made against critics of Israel’s violence in Gaza—from students to celebrities to the UN—is making this an impossible task. “People are so desensitised to [antisemitism] now, there is no patience for it,” one young woman who has organised with Na’amod says. “You don’t feel protected on either side.” 

Might we see the generational shift over Gaza percolate through the Jewish community? It is possible, as the younger cohorts take up leadership roles and become the ones who pay the synagogue fees. One recently retired rabbi says that the rising generations of leftist Jews standing with Palestinians could well herald a swing in that direction more broadly in the British Jewish community itself. Combined with the growing pressure from young American Jews who are increasingly vocal over Israel’s violent oppression of Palestinians, this swing might be a force for progressive change, at least in helping to end the unconditional support the country enjoys among western allies, despite routine violations of international law. “The good thing is their Jewish engagement,” the retired rabbi told me. “If they remain engaged as Jews then of course it is going to change. There is no question about it.”